You may have seen Alice on BBC2 as she walked from Morocco to Timbuktu, or listened to her podcasts featuring Hamish the cheeky camel over lockdown. Now she is back with her latest book, Walking with Nomads, which follows her on three remarkable journeys across Morocco, from the Sahara to the Atlas mountains.
BMS Administrator Ella spoke with Alice from her home in Imlil in the Atlas Mountains to hear more about her latest adventure and share a sneak preview of the book with BMS members.
Alice, can you tell us a bit about how you ended up in Morocco and the adventure behind your latest book?
I moved to Marrakech in January 2014 to train for, and then run, the infamous Marathon des Sables. I wanted an adventure for a few months. Little did I know that I would still be living in Morocco eight years on having fallen in love, not with a handsome Marrakchi with flashing brown eyes, but with the whole country.
Walking with Nomads is the tale of my epic walk across Morocco and the Sahara with my three Amazigh guides and 6 camels – including naughty Hamish, my favourite. It took 7 ½ months to get from Nador to Guerguerat and comprised three expeditions: the Draa, the Sahara and the Atlas Mountains. I wrote the book, but it is the story of all of us who walked together, the people we met and the land we crossed. Ali, Addi and Brahim are my guides for this section. I think you will also find parts of your own story in here.
Choosing an excerpt for as expert an audience as the BMS is a rather intimidating task. I hope you enjoy this story of a feast with the nomads of the Rekkam plateau and I hope it inspires you to spread the word about it to your networks and to buy the book.
Shoukran, tanmirt and thank you.
EXCERPT from Walking with Nomads
with photos from Alice’s adventure
You have to bend to get in to the women’s tent, but once inside you can stand up straight. Outside it is black but inside it is roofed with plaited straw mats and old hessian sacking. These are held up by sticks of wood of varying lengths and girths which act like a forest of tent poles. The floor is pressed earth and is obviously swept very regularly. I am sat down by the front entrance on a rug with a cushion and brought some tea. To my right is the kitchen area. Two women are squatting comfortably on the ground and one is kneading dough. A metal screen about half a metre high shields the fire in the kitchen area. There is a wood fire using branches gathered from the oued and also a gas-fired oven for bread, which the women will make fresh every day. An ancient black kettle is on to boil and an equally black heavy iron griddle which one of the women places a perfect round of dough on to produce the flaky bread of the region. All the other kitchen utensils are piled up carefully behind. The sleeping mats and blankets are neatly folded and stacked up behind where I am sitting in the middle of the tent. Behind me there is a cloth cradle attached by ropes to the top of the tent and Hanan’s four month old baby daughter is being rocked in it by her grandmother. On my left there are three lambs: twins and a frail newly-born. The twins’ mother comes to the outside of the tent and calls for them and they run out to meet her. Cats prowl in and out.
The tent is baking hot, much more so than usual and the reason is clear. A big pile of embers is glowing to the left of the kitchen area and a whole spatchcocked sheep is spitted on one long branch of wood. Two men – one at each end – are slowly rotating it by hand over the embers to cook it through. Dinner. One of the sons of the house, Mohammed, is eating an early supper and he sits down to talk to me. He tells me that his tribe is the Ibn Guil and that they originate from Yemen. Two women come in and start asking me about my religion. I tell them I am a Christian but that I respect Islam greatly. They ask me if I pray and fast and I say that our prayers are different, we don’t have a schedule or set words in the same way and that I do fast for Ramadan out of respect for my neighbours. I can see that they don’t approve and that I am failing to meet their standards of what a good woman should be. Mohammed rescues me, ‘We are all people of the book. Christianity is not far from Islam.’ He finishes supper and goes to the corner to pray and I am summoned to the salon, where the men are, to show my papers to the gendarme, sheikh and muqaddim who have arrived in the meantime.
The salon is a long narrow room with the usual carpets on the floor and cushions against the wall. There are low tables in the middle. It is stuffed full of men, including mine and all eyes are turned to this female interloper. I decide to go for shock and awe so say a cheerful ‘Salaam alaykum.’ The ice is broken. I am placed on display on a plastic chair at the end of the room and go through all the usual questions. The lieutenant of the gendarmes is very pleased with my Arabic and congratulates us all on our trip, laughing a bit as I say I want to find dinosaurs. After he leaves with all the other dignitaries, every one relaxes and I go to sit down beside our host, the hajj. He takes a liking to me, which I reciprocate, and twinkles his eyes. The men pick up their conversation which to my vast amusement is all about directions. It seems that you can be in a totally different continent but that people will behave in exactly the same way and that, in our gender fluid times, the men will still cluster in a corner at a party and discuss the equivalent of heavy traffic on the M1. Ali and Addi are sitting opposite me and Addi’s head keeps dropping as he nods off. Ali’s eyes are dropping over his eyelids. Usually by this time we have eaten, washed up and I am falling asleep to the gentle sound of snoring.
Our hosts bring in bowls of excellent soup. It is the goat equivalent of oxtail, rich and meaty and we all eat up. The hajj and I are getting on great guns and I am constantly supplied with morsels of bread and have my water glass topped up with cool water, ‘Our water from the well is excellent,’ he tells me.
Then, the door opens wide and with gasps of appreciation from all of us, the roasted sheep is brought in on a platter. The men all move in close to the low tables and settle themselves for proper eating. ‘Bismillah,’ and we are off. Well, they are off. Our knives and forks are our fingers or pieces of bread and my fingers are not up to the task. The meat is burning hot, the fat-crisped skin is still sizzling from the embers and when I try to pinch off a piece I can’t hold my fingers to it long enough. Hajj to the rescue, he instructs his eldest son to tear pieces off for me, laughing gently. The meat is as succulent as you imagine. The crackling is perfect and juicy and the mutton is sweet. Silence reigns as everyone concentrates. I look over at Addi, Ali and Brahim and they are all trenchering with absolute focus. That whole sheep lasts about ten minutes and by the end there is only a small pile of bones left. Addi cracks all the big ones with his fine teeth, sucking out the marrow. I made my way through a couple of ribs which were salty and crunched easily.
After we have finished, one of the younger sons brings round a kettle of warm water and pours it over our hands into a bowl so that we can wash and we sit comfortably.
Into the silence, Brahim raises his voice and starts to sing a prayer. His voice fills every part of the room. The men sit up straight, pull their jellaba hoods over their heads and open their hands with the palms facing upwards. There is the sound of running feet and the young men who weren’t at the feast come in and sit down. Brahim’s face is transformed. He is a conduit for something greater than himself. The men are rapt. Some watch him, some join in when they recognise the words of the verses and some focus inwards. The music of Brahim’s voice swells and is lifted up by the power of the words and the palpable faith of the gathering. Then, he brings the prayers to a close.
Our hosts thank him. They have provided us with a feast but they value Brahim’s contribution far more highly. As we walk back under the stars he tells me. ‘A party is just a party. You eat and talk and that is it. But a prayer puts a khatim, a seal, on it. It finishes it and also ensure that it ends properly with good feelings and intentions regardless of what came before.’